Sunday, January 10, 2016


While Jean is traveling, Valerie takes a toothy trip down memory lane.

All my life I've had a gap between my front teeth.

For the past several months I've noticed that when inhaling air between them (an unconscious habit), I pull in far less air than I used to.  So during my semi-annual prophylactic visit to the dentist in December, I took the opportunity to ask Cindy, my absolutely wonderful dental hygienist, whether it was my imagination, or were my two front teeth growing closer together.  I kind of wish she'd looked at my old x rays for comparison, but I was satisfied when Cindy told me that as we age, our teeth tend to move in two directions simultaneously: inward and downward.  That must be what's happening with me.

Thinking about the closing of the gap brought back all sorts of memories about growing up gap-toothed.

Readers, you might be looking at the opening picture and asking "WHAT gap tooth?"  When I was 14, I got a night retainer specifically to deal with it.  It never entirely went away, but four years of the night retainer got my teeth to the point where I no longer felt quite so self-conscious.  And I had been very self-conscious.

I don't remember anyone ever making fun of my teeth, but they were very different from my family's and my classmates', so I concealed them.  Combing through my childhood pictures, there are almost no photographs of me with a toothy grin.  My parents couldn't understand it, and I wasn't about to tell them.  It took a friend of my mother's, a professional photographer, to figure it out and explain it to them.  I'm tight-lipped in most of my childhood photos, like this one, taken at school in second grade.

When I was growing up, there was an English actor, Terry Thomas, who had a gap so large he could just about have fit an extra tooth in it.  My gap wasn't as pronounced as that, but it was big enough for me to fit my tongue in it sideways.  That's pretty big.  And besides (to a child's way of thinking), Thomas was English, not American, and old, so it didn't matter if he had a gap.  As far as I could tell, I was the only American with funny teeth.  And kids, as we know, want to look like their friends, not like old English actors.

One of the odd benefits of having my large gap was that I could whistle tunes through it.  I could also whistle the conventional way, by pursing my lips, but if I whistled through my gap, I could do that with my lips perfectly still, as long as they were open to let air through.  (And in perfect pitch, too!)

In 10th grade, I was bedeviled by the world's worst gym teacher.  Everyone cycled through Mrs. B. (not her real initial) at least once, but when they cycled me through her a second time I was aghast, because by that time I'd seen how many good gym teachers we had, and couldn't understand why anyone was saddled with her at all, much less saddled a second time.  (I think now that it must have been a tenure issue.)  Not only could she not perform any of the tasks she gave us (or was supposed to give us), not only was she burned-out and mean as a snake, she also preferred to have us standing in ranks for most of the period, either perfectly still or marching in place.  My otherwise very good school should have been ashamed of itself for allowing Mrs. B. to stand in front of a class.  She brings to mind Ma Barker (below) more than anyone else.  (If you are asking 'Who's that?', read a little about Ma Barker here.)

I still have my high school year book, but there are no pictures of gym class, so I've substituted the very reasonable facsimile below.  (There's a picture of Mrs. B., but who knows if we'd be sued for defamation.  So I've uploaded Ma Barker who, in any case, looks a bit friendlier and more fit than Mrs. B.)  See the nearly vertical line at the extreme left of the gym photo?  That tells you you're only seeing half of a very large class.  That's about the size my class was.  (My graduating class had 2,000 students, so you get the idea.)  See the girl in the yellow circle way in the back toward the right?  That's about where I stood.  (Fashion note: we did not have white uniforms.  We had the most awful green, and I say that as someone who likes to wear green.)

In the midst of a full day of academic rigor, where we had to be silent most of the day, you'd think gym class would be the perfect place to run and jump and let off steam and generally be joyful in physical activity.  Not in Mrs. B.'s class.  One day, as on many days before that, Mrs. B. demanded silence as we stood in our places, and after months of enduring her barely veiled sadistic streak, something in me snapped.  I began to whistle through the gap in my teeth, knowing that my lips would not give me away.  I was also way in the back of the class, which I figured was the perfect camouflage, as Mrs. B. never made the effort to wander through our ranks.  Again Mrs. B. demanded silence, but I continued whistling defiantly, relishing the opportunity to at last torment my tormenter.  What I didn't count on, however, was that Mrs. B. would single out an innocent classmate if she couldn't find the actual culprit.  Amazingly, she zeroed in on Francoise (not her real name), the girl right in front of me, and demanded that she come to the front of the class.  This meant she would get a mark on her report card.  Francoise stepped out of line. As she started for the front, I grabbed her by the arm. I couldn't let her take the blame for my bad behavior.  It was my transgression.  I thought I could get away with it, but since I couldn't, I couldn't let anyone else take the blame for it either.  But Francoise shook me off, shot me a glance, and motioned for me to stay where I was. The whole class was now silent with tension - it's never good to get called out, or to get a mark on your report card - but even so there was a bit of black humor in the whole thing.  We all felt that way about Mrs. B.  I took the step of defying a bully, and Francoise supported me by taking a black mark on her gym card. Even now, decades later, and the undercurrent of comedy notwithstanding, I am still humbled and awed by what Francoise did for me that day.

(The third time the school tried to cycle me through another of Mrs. B.'s classes, I played hooky until administration called me on the carpet, and I scared them into transferring me to a qualified teacher. But that's a story for another time.)

In college, young men studying English literature delighted in comparing me to the bawdy gap-toothed Wife of Bath in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  It was great to have men wonder about me based on the reputation of a 500 year old woman, but that only piqued the imaginations of English majors.  The gap tooth reference was a dead loss on the guys in pre-med.
from The Chatterbox, 1880

Even though the gap in my teeth is barely noticeable these days, it's had a lifelong effect on me.  I can't count how many times Jean has had to ask me to smile for the camera.  It surprises me because I think I am smiling - I'm just not showing my teeth.  But when confronted with the photographic evidence, by golly, she's right.  I actually look a bit grim.  The big toothy grin, such as the one in the opening photo, takes a lot of practice, and still doesn't come naturally.

While we're on the subject of gap teeth, Terry Thomas's is not the only well known gap out there.  Vogue cover model Lauren Hutton has a gap tooth.  Here she is wearing a little cover on her teeth.  (Remember how big the safari look used to be in the 70s?  And how big fur coats were?  [But really, who wears a fur coat on a safari???]  That's New York's 59th Street Bridge in the background.)  Eileen Ford had told Hutton to have her teeth fixed permanently, but the little cover she had made for the purpose worked quite well.

Here she is au naturel, so to speak.

Much newer on the scene is Georgia May Jagger who, far from wearing braces or cover-ups, flaunts her gap tooth, like the good Wife of Bath, as a badge of sensuality.

Some of you must be skeptical about this post, since I haven't shown any evidence of having a gap tooth, and quite to the contrary have only shown photos that undermine my story.  Well, it was difficult, but I found a picture to support my claim.  I probably thought my lips were closed when this picture was taken.  Or maybe I was ordered to smile since it was a formal photo, and managed this as a compromise. Arguably, I'd say I outgapped both Hutton and Jagger.  I must have been about 12 when this was taken.  I was in that awful in-between phase, and I can see my mother still controlled my wardrobe and hairstyle. Sigh...  So, with much ambivalence, I present Exhibit 1.

I wonder if I was whistling.


  1. Now, do you miss your gap and wish you had it? I used to have a "beauty mark" on my left nostril; when I babysat, my charges would love to touch it and say it was a "lady bug.I HATED that lady bug so I had it removed in high school. A couple of years later it was quite the rage to have your nose pierced in the EXACT LOCATION of my "beauty mark". You better believe I wished I had left my beautiful mole. Thank you for the brought back memories

  2. I have the same feelings about my crooked teeth as you have about your gap, and my teeth are not as crooked as they used to be. I rarely show my teeth when I smile either. Looking at the first photo of you in this post, you would never know you had a gap between your teeth. Those kinds of things are always hardest to cope with as a kid.

  3. OMG. I had a gap tooth too and a similar picture. Wish I could have whistled through it! Had the headgear too, the worst, I remember my teeth being so sore that I couldn't eat wonder bread and jelly sandwiches. LOL

  4. I'm captivated by your "tooth gap" story. You are a master storyteller and I love your writing. And your hat!!! It was made for you.

  5. Valerie, as one of your close childhood friends, I think you should know that I always envied your gap as representing something wild and free and fierce about you. I recall thinking way back then that it was a sign to others that you were someone to be reckoned with, a little brunette rebel. Turned out I was right!

  6. Those are some great pictures. Especially of the man with the bowling hat. I love that. It is funny how that look is now very much coming back into style. And even the mustache and the long cigarette. It is all coming back, the only difference is that it is new and improved. Great post and thanks for sharing with.

    Joanna @ Westheimer Dentist

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time out to share this story with the world. I really enjoyed reading it. It is true that you can not tell from the picture at the top that you ever had such a gap between your two front teeth as you have described. The dentists truly did a great job on your smile.